Senate passes $50 billion Sandy disaster relief bill, town seeks reimbursement
Following the U.S. Senate’s approval of an emergency package to fund rebuilding efforts and provide assistance to the victims of Hurricane Sandy on Jan. 28, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said that the town had requested $211,297 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy. The request did not include the cost of debris removal.
The bill, known as H.R. 152 or the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, approves $50.5 billion in relief and includes $5.3 billion to replenish FEMA’s disaster relief fund. Passed by a 62-to-36 vote margin in the Senate, the bill was signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 29. The new funds will enable towns and cities affected by Hurricane Sandy to be reimbursed for some percentage of the costs borne in responding to the storm, such as debris cleanup and overtime for police officers and staff.
Although there is currently no official estimate of the total cost of the damages caused by Hurricane Sandy in Princeton, Lempert said costs to the town related to the storm included debris cleanup, public works projects, increased police patrols, staffing for community shelters, and operation of the sewer systems and emergency generators. Princeton’s request to FEMA included all of these items except debris cleanup.
The town has not yet received any percentage of the reimbursement that it requested.
In addition, the Princeton Public Schools school board applied for federal assistance, according to Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Judy Wilson.
Wilson said the school district made expenditures to pay employees overtime, clean up its premises, repair a damaged gymnasium roof and hire professionals to remove tree debris from the premises.
In comparison to other schools in New Jersey, however, Princeton’s public schools faced minimal damage. “While we certainly did have costs and damage, we certainly didn’t have the level of damage that many school districts on the coast or in the north had,” Wilson said.
The Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad also applied for federal assistance, according to PFARS Director of Operations Frank Setnicky.
Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.) estimated that Princeton residents had made “a couple hundred requests” each to FEMA and the Small Business Association. Holt also noted that FEMA has received about 250,000 requests for assistance from individuals across New Jersey.
In combination with a $9.7 billion package passed by Congress on Jan. 4, the new Senate-approved bill brings federal disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy up to $60 billion. However, the $50 billion authorized by Thursday’s bill falls short of the $82 billion requested by the governors of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, whose states were hit hardest by the storm. Nevertheless, the governors praised the Senate’s recognition of the urgency of approving the bill in a joint statement on Jan. 28.
But not everyone agrees that it is enough to fully respond to the disaster. According to Holt, the answer depends on what one thinks the objective of disaster relief is.
“It depends on what you mean by ‘repair,’” Holt said. “It will take care of the immediate needs; it will replenish the FEMA and SBA funds. But it will fall far short of what’s needed to rebuild for the future.”
Though Jersey Shore communities were hit hardest by the storm, Rush noted that towns located on the Raritan River, such as South River, Sayreville and East Brunswick, that experienced a tidal surge sustained damage comparable to that of some coastal towns.
“There were a lot of homeowners who were flooded out in the middle of the night,” he said.
“And then a few hours later, of course the tide receded, and it was gone, but damage was done.”
Noting that climate scientists have predicted increasingly severe natural events in the future, Holt warned that more money would be required to put adequate mitigation efforts in place.
“If this kind of storm is the ‘new normal’ … then rebuilding the roadways, the electrical system, the mass transit [system] to withstand future super storms will take even more,” he said. “In some sense, you know, this is enough for now, but not enough for the long run.”
Holt painted a grim picture for future natural disasters and expressed concern over the fact that the vote in the House fell along regional and partisan lines because disaster relief has traditionally been a nonpartisan issue.
“The people who voted for this in the House of Representatives … were either Democrats, Northeast Republicans or Gulf Coast Republicans and a very small number of other Republicans,” he said. “It suggests a partisanship or a regionalism that doesn’t bode well for the future.”
Though FEMA generally reimburses states for 75 percent of the cost of responding to natural disasters, Gov. Christie requested in December that FEMA reimburse the state for 100 percent of the costs associated with debris removal and emergency measures in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
On Nov. 28, Gov. Christie assessed the total cost of Hurricane Sandy-related damages to New Jersey at $36.9 billion. The estimate took into account damages to state transportation and utilities systems, personal property, businesses, mitigation and prevention efforts and the anticipated impact on the tourism industry.
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